San Francisco school will cover, not destroy, controversial George Washington mural

The artwork with images of slaves and a slain Native American will be covered with panels that showcase "the heroism of people of color in America," the school board president says.
Image:
People fill the main entryway of George Washington High School to view the controversial 13-panel, 1,600-square foot mural, the "Life of Washington," during an open house for the public on Aug. 1, 2019, in San Francisco.Eric Risberg / AP

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By David K. Li

The San Francisco school board Tuesday night voted to cover — but not destroy a mural that shows founding father George Washington owning slaves and beginning the conquest of Native Americans.

By a 4-3 vote, lawmakers approved a compromise plan by board president Stevon Cook to save the mural at George Washington High School from being painted over.

Back in June, the board had voted to paint over the divisive mural. Now it'll instead be obscured with panels that'll depict "the heroism of people of color in America, how we have fought against, and continue to battle discrimination, racism, hatred and poverty," Cook said.

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"I brought it back so if you're upset with somebody, you can be upset with me," Cook said of his approved compromise plan.

Before the meeting, actor, civil rights activist and Washington HS alum Danny Glover implored board members to keep the "Life of Washington" mural. He said the best art is made to make people "uncomfortable" and remind all of what still needs to be accomplished.

"You have to feel uncomfortable to sense what the past is and how the past is connected to the future, the present and the future," Glover said.

The 13-panel, 1,600-square work shows Washington at various points in his life, with images of slaves working at his Mount Vernon home and a dead Native American killed in America's westward expansion.

The artwork, painted in 1935 and 1936 by Russian immigrant Victor Arnautoff, was intended as a harsh critique of Washington's legacy as America's first president.

But critics of the work said the mural was a grim reminder to students, particularly those from minority communities, of the racism they still face.

Bay Area residents on both sides of the argument came away with some, but not all, that they wanted Tuesday night.

“We’re happy that it’s going to be covered. That’s what we wanted ultimately, we don’t want students to have to see this still,” mural opponent Arianna Antone-Ramirez told NBC Bay Area. “But we do wish it would have been voted to be painted down."

It’s expected to take years to design panels to have the art obscured.

“I don’t want to a call it a victory per se,” said preservationist Tamaka Bailey. “I look at it as preserving history.”

Associated Press contributed.